A NEW PRESIDENTIAL election cycle is heating up, and Bernie Sanders finds himself in an unfamiliar position: on the sidelines.
The independent senator from Vermont, who rallied millions of progressive supporters behind his bids in 2016 and 2020, is not making a run for the White House in 2024. Instead, he is now talking up his former rival Joe Biden — as well as the dire threat to democracy posed by another Trump term.
Sanders sings Biden’s praises as president, insisting he has plenty to be “proud” of from his first term. But no one would mistake Sanders as a supporter of the status quo. The Democratic socialist has strong ideas about what the incumbent can do — or, as Sanders puts it, “must do” — to transform what now polls like a tossup with Trump into a blowout victory.
Sanders is emphatic that Biden must level with the American people about the seriousness of the crises we face, and call out the true obstacles to change: an extremist GOP; unchecked billionaire power; and “corporate democrats” like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, whom he blames for blocking legislation that would have “have transformed life for working-class families in this country.”
Rolling Stone spoke to Sanders not only about the sky-high stakes of the 2024 contest, but also his support for the Hollywood writers’ strike, his pipe dream of a 32-hour work week, and even Elon Musk’s meteoric greed.
This following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Lay out the stakes for the 2024 election, and why you’re backing Biden — rather than challenging him — for the nomination.
This is a momentous election. The American people are going to make profound choices about whether they want to bring back into power somebody like a Trump — who has been impeached twice, indicted four times, is a pathological liar, and who has worked to undermine American democracy and move us toward authoritarianism. Do we want somebody like that to be president of the United States?
But what concerns me is that, if you look at the polling right now, you are seeing a more-or-less even situation, Trump versus Biden.
If you were to counsel somebody who has lost faith in the two-party political process — a voter who is considering backing a third-party candidate like Cornel West, for example — what would you say to them to get them on board for Biden ‘24.
I am the longest serving independent in the history of the United States of America. So I know something about this issue. I’m not going to argue with Cornel, who is a good friend of mine, about his analysis of what’s going on in America. We have a country where our political system is corrupt, because of Citizens United and billionaires buying elections. We have massive concentration of ownership in this country, a health care system that is broken, et cetera.
On the other hand: We are facing the real possibility that the United States will lose its democratic foundations if Trump once again becomes the president. And that risk is so great that people are going to have to say, “Look, we have to defeat Trump and support Biden.”
But at the same time they can make it clear to Biden that he is going to have to stand up for working-class people in a much stronger way. It’s not good enough for him to rest on his laurels. He’s going to have to take on corporate greed, and we need young people — working-class people — and activists to play a role in that.
How do Biden and Democrats make the case?
Here is what the Democrats have got to do — and should do, and must do — in order to win this election, and win it big.
First, what the Democrats are doing now, which is right and important, is making clear that women should be able to control their own bodies, not state government. The vast majority of Americans agree with them. And they have got to stay with that issue. Big time.
Second, we’ve got to make it very, very clear that we are taking on a [Republican] party which increasingly does not believe in democracy, but believes in authoritarianism and right-wing extremism.
And third is to point out that, in Biden’s first three years, there have been massive accomplishments. Three years ago, this country was in desperate condition because of Covid and the economic downturn. The American Rescue Plan got this country back on its feet. We’ve also dealt with infrastructure in an unprecedented way — more investment in clean energy than ever before. We’re beginning to take on the pharmaceutical industry and lower the cost of prescription drugs, [expand] overtime pay, et cetera. There’s a lot that Democrats and the American people are right to be very proud of.
But you think he needs to promise more for 2024?
All of that is important. But it is not enough. The White House has got to say: We have a lot more to do. Sixty percent of working people are living paycheck to paycheck, too many seniors have nothing in the bank for retirement, we have an affordable housing crisis, a child care crisis, an education crisis. And Biden needs to be honest with the American people about how we’re going to address these structural crises facing the working class of this country. [He needs to say]: “Give me 50 real Democrats — not Manchin or Sinema — 50 real Democrats in the Senate. Give me majority control in the House.”
What’s challenging here is that in the pandemic-era, we saw a proving ground for remarkable progressive policies like expanded Medicaid enrollment, direct cash to families, the pause in student loan repayments. And all that is all dissipating — and not under Republican president. Some progressives are disillusioned.
Here’s how to address it. And this is where it requires people — and the media — to be dealing with reality. [We had a plan to] deal with the structural crises faced by America. That was Build Back Better. I was chairman of the Budget Committee at the time. We started off with a $6 trillion bill, which would have transformed life for working-class families in this country. We had zero support from Republicans, not one. And we lost two corporate Democrats. We had 48 votes; we couldn’t proceed.
So all of those enormous achievements, as you mentioned, during the Covid era, they’re disappearing right and left. We’re seeing millions of people losing their Medicaid, and the reason for that is we don’t have the kind of support we need in the Senate and Republicans are controlling the House. That is the point that has got to be made clear to the American people.
You brought up Trump’s legal troubles. What is your confidence in the ability of our legal system to bring him to justice? Is a former president too big to jail?
No. Everybody in America is subject to the law. My own personal view is that Trump tried to undermine American democracy and undermine the election results. That goes to the heart of what democracy is supposed to be about. When you lose, you accept it, accept the will of the people. He did not.
But what concerns me is he’s still getting a lot of support. It is no secret that in recent years Democrats have lost a lot of support from white working-class people, from Latino workers. They’re losing support, right now, even from Black workers. We’ve got to win that support back. And we can.
There is no reason why working-class people should be voting for a political party where most of the congressional representatives want to cut Social Security, want to cut Medicare, want to cut Medicaid, are “right to work” supporters, and don’t even believe in the reality of climate change.
Biden has to thread a needle in 2024 — not losing the Cornel West voter but also not losing the Joe Manchin voter. Manchin may be flirting with a third-party run himself. How does Biden keep the center-right in the Big Tent while also promising a more progressive agenda?
You do that by fighting for ideas that are popular. I saw a poll a number of months ago that was just Republicans. Do you know what their major issue was? It was not overthrowing the United States government. It was the high cost of prescription drugs. If Biden says, “We’ve made progress — the Inflation Reduction Act begins Medicare drug-price negotiations — but we got to go further,” he’ll win enormous amount of support — from conservative Democrats, from progressives, from Republicans.
Or you say to seniors in this country — many of whom are Republicans — we know you can’t afford dental care, you can’t afford your hearing aid, you can’t afford your eyeglasses. We’re going to expand Medicare to cover dental, vision, hearing. That’s enormously popular, I’ve seen polls where 80 percent of the American people support it.
You don’t have to be radical. Do what the American people want.
The other thing people understand, whether they’re Republican, Democrat, or independent, is corporate greed is at an outrageous level. This is not just Bernie Sanders talking. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that one of the reasons we had high inflation is not just the war in Ukraine, not just the breakdown in supply chain, it was greed.
Inflation, of course, gave political cover for rolling back Covid-era social support. Folks claimed that extra money in consumer pockets was driving up prices. You don’t buy that?
That’s certainly the Republican line. And some of the Democrats are frightened about that line. But the American people are catching on that we are looking really at an unprecedented level of corporate greed. If you’re paying, as I am in Vermont, $3.89 for a gallon of gas today, that’s a lot to do with ExxonMobil making $55 billion in profits last year. Or look at the record breaking profits in the major food corporations. Paying more for rent? Check out what Wall Street is doing in housing. Check out the prescription drug industry; the pharmaceutical industry doing phenomenally well. Look at all these profits, enormously high stock buybacks, dividends. The president has got to make it clear — and most Americans will support this — that we’re going to take on corporate greed. They cannot have it all.
The poster billionaire for unaccountable power right now is Elon Musk. But he’s also benefited enormously from government contracts and subsidies. Are there federal carrots or sticks that could help bring someone like that back into an accountable mode?
Excellent question. And it is Musk — but it’s not just Musk. You got Bezos. You got others. I’ll give you one example, and that is the degree to which NASA is being privatized. You had an effort providing billions of dollars to Bezos. Musk has benefited from contracts. And you’re looking at people like Musk and Bezos playing a very significant role in outer space development.
It’s no secret Musk wants to develop Mars. And by the way, the kind of riches that he could benefit from mining — literally mining — meteors is a huge amount of money. Do you know that? No one is talking about it. Right now, Musk and Bezos literally have the legal right to take rare minerals off a meteor for their own personal gain — which to me is literally beyond comprehension.
We’re just a few days past Labor Day. What are your thoughts on the Hollywood strike against the massive studios?
The American people are behind the writers and actors. We all understand what artificial intelligence and new technologies are going to mean to the workforce. And actors and writers are running into that right now. Entertainment is extremely important for this country, for all of us. And the American people are supportive of the strike, and want the industry to come to terms in a fair way with their employees.
You’ve called for an “unprecedented worker response to the unprecedented corporate greed” and even floated the idea of a 32-hour work week, with the same pay. How do you see that working?
Technology unto itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s how it is used, and who benefits. If you have new technology that can help physicians detect disease, that is a very good thing. If you have technology that can do work that today is dangerous and monotonous for workers, that is a good thing. But if you have technology that simply increases productivity and throws workers out on the street, that is a bad thing.
The bottom line is we have to make sure that artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technologies benefit working people. If we are increasing worker productivity — and we are, that is what technology does — I want workers to benefit from that. What does that mean? The 40-hour work was created in 1940. That is 83 years ago, the world has changed! We can reduce the work week, from 40 hours down to 32 hours with no loss of pay. So they have more time for leisure, family time, education, cultural activities. People are stressed out right now. And work has a lot to do with that stress.
We’re seeing age as a real issue in politics. A couple of your colleagues, Mitch McConnell and Dianne Feinstein, are having major issues. And Donald Trump and Joe Biden would both be well into their 80s by the end of the next presidential term. How should voters assess the issue?
I’m 42, I wouldn’t know about that. [Laughs.]
Listen, age is a factor. But it is one of many factors. If you think somebody is old and can’t perform, don’t vote for that person. That’s fine. But at the end of the day, when you look at a political figure, what is most important is what they stand for.